The business of dairy farming and what that means for our “stock”

I don’t like to use the word “stock” when it comes to cows. The connotation is that they are simply economic units. Yes, we do rely on their milk for our living but, no, they are not simply the equivalent of black-and-white boxes in a grassy warehouse. We burn the midnight oil, holding down second jobs during tough times so the cows will never know a lean year.

A sick cow is more important than our own dinners.

Nor are male calves “low-value by-products” of dairying. Maybe for some but not for me. Absolutely not. Rather than shooting them (the economically rational path), our family chooses to make a loss rearing the bull calves for the first few days of their lives and then selling them to beef-farming locals.

In the same vein, I am not a “milk producer” but a farmer. Somehow, “producer” conjures up factories and production lines, while nothing could be further from the truth here. We nurture our animals and the land because we understand that nature is bigger than we are. Sounds trite and fluffy? Perhaps, but it’s the reality.

There is no financial reward for such an attitude and in the teeth of the economic crisis most dairy farmers have suffered in recent times, the pressure’s been on to make every conceivable saving but here’s how I look at it: if you’re not able to make a dollar out of farming this year, you should at least be able to feel good about the way you farm.

If farming this way is not viable, I would rather not be a farmer.

Jousting for poll position

Scuffles broke out right across the paddock as the weak winter sun lit the stage for a bovine pugilism festival. The cows were feeling magnificent and, unable to contain their energy, were ready to take on all comers.

jousting jousting2 jousting3

The kids and I love watching the cows “do butter-heads” and the cows seem to love it, too. For every pair or trio engaged in warfare, there will be a group of curious onlookers and one scuffle seems to inspire more outbreaks.

Does butter-heads have a serious purpose though? Yes, it does. The herd has a very structured pecking order. Cows come into the dairy in roughly the same order every milking and the smallest and most timid are inevitably last. Mess them up by splitting the herd into seemingly random groups for a large-scale vet procedure like preg testing and you can expect trouble. There are cows thrust into leadership positions who don’t want to go into the yard first and lots more poo than usual.

I am sure that in days gone by, these battles were often fought to the death. Strong, razor sharp horns with 550kg of muscle and bone behind them are fearsome weapons. Our calves have their horn buds removed as painlessly as we can manage it early on to avoid far greater traumas later in life and for our own protection.

Soon, they will be spared even this discomfort. Dairy cows are being bred “polled” (without horns) and, eventually, we will have a herd that is naturally hornless. It’s not easy finding suitable polled bulls yet but our breeding centre tells me that demand from dairy farmers for polled semen is now “huge”.

I have my eyes on a couple of German polled beaux for our ladies. I only hope we can get them in time for this year’s mating season.

Stealing the calf’s milk

There’s an urban myth that dairy farmers rear calves away from the herd so we can harvest the special buttercup-yellow milk that comes with the first milkings after calving called colostrum. The irony is that one of the main reasons we collect calves early is to ensure they get plenty of colostrum.

According to a Dairy Australia fact sheet on colostrum management:

“Unlike humans, the placenta of the cow keeps the maternal blood supply separate from that of the unborn calf. This prevents the transfer of antibodies from the cow to the calf before birth and the calf is born with no ability to fight disease.”

“Colostrum is the substance that provides the antibodies that form the main protection from infectious diseases for the calf in the first 6 weeks of life, until the calf can develop antibodies of its own. Without colostrum, a calf is likely to die.”

What’s more, calves need it immediately, as DA goes on to explain:

“It is important to be clear about two key facts relating to colostrum:
• The calf’s intestine absorbs the large IgG molecules easily straight after birth
• The intestine’s ability to absorb antibodies decreases after birth—it decreases by 30–50 % within 6 hours of birth
• It stops completely between 24 to 36 hours after birth”

Yes, it’s vital to our calves.

We don’t sell a drop of the precious stuff (few farmers do, which is why it’s so expensive) and we’re not allowed to mix it with the rest of the milk because it goes off quickly. “Stealing colostrum from calves” is certainly not why we raise the calves away from the herd.

Why it’s great to work with kids and animals

I’m so grateful for the support of people around Australia and as far afield as Canada in response to my post about how to save Australian dairy. It’s been so heartening.

But then, a rather nasty person appeared out of the blue on Twitter today and cast a cloud over my morning – for 10 minutes anyhow. Because, after that, I got to do some work in the paddock and enjoyed the company of my two little farmers and some other members of our team. Kids and animals are the perfect antidote for trolls.

Well hello, Luscious Legs, how pregnant are we?

luscious legs

Ooh la la!

These shapely legs belong to the beleaguered wearer of “The Shirt”. Apparently, it was too hot to wear long pants or anything waterproof today doing a Big Job.

Anyhow, the Big Job was a special occasion: we got to find out how pregnant we are (or more correctly, how pregnant the cows are). Preg testing qualifies for the title of Big Job because it entails lining up 125 cows a day for an internal examination by the vet. Not painful for the cows but a big change in routine like this always means added excitement.

The good news is that almost all of our 250 milkers have indeed conceived to our irresistible team of bulls. All expectant cows will take a two-month holiday before calving and we will greet the next generation from late April onwards.

A sizeable group of cows will not calve at all in 2013 – I pulled the plug on mating early – and will instead enjoy our company twice a day, seven days a week for the next 18 months.

The dairy farmer’s calendar

Summer is the laziest time of year for a dairy farmer but when Wayne and I started writing a “to do” list yesterday, my head began to spin a little. Not satisfied with a mild head rush, I went on to draft a rough calendar:

The Annual Milk Maid’s To-Do List

Lazy Summer Days

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (pump breakdowns are popular this season)
  • Begin drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Make hay
  • Have we conserved enough fodder? Consider buying more
  • Begin feeding silage, crops and hay
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Control blackberries
  • Vaccinations, drenching, branding, preg testing
  • Big maintenance projects (the stuff you put off the rest of the year)
  • Dream of the next Great Leap Forward

Autumn Anxieties

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (milk quality issues popular this season)
  • Continue drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Special feeding regime for expectant cows
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Test soils for nutrient levels
  • Repair cow tracks
  • Sow new pastures
  • Fertilise pastures
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Chase revegetation grants and order trees
  • Maintenance
  • Still feeding silage and hay
  • Nude rain dancing in full swing

Winter Woes

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (calving emergencies popular this season)
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Fence and spray areas for revegetation
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Feed three groups of cows different rations
  • Mating program in full swing
  • Consider another drenching
  • Buy new gumboots and practise rain dancing in reverse
  • Redo budgets after milk factory announces opening price
  • Keep chin up

Supercharged Spring

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (unpredictable weather popular this season)
  • Train the new members of the herd
  • Visit the accountant (and maybe the banker)
  • Fertilise, fertilise, fertilise
  • Vaccinate and wean calves
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the calf shed
  • Plant trees
  • Control thistles
  • Make silage
  • Sow summer crops
  • Make grass angels

I know I’ve missed stuff – lots of it – but it should give you an idea of what happens day-to-day and season-to-season on our very average Australian dairy farm. So, dear Reader, as we head into 2013, what do you want to know more about?

Not because I’m a nasty farmer

A grainy video of people holding their children down while they were being stabbed with pins would cause outrage around the world…until someone explained they were lucky kids receiving lifesaving vaccinations.

It’s a similar thing with farming and that’s one of the reasons I write a dairy farmer’s blog – so you have the explanations about our practices that you deserve.

Since I started writing Milk Maid Marian almost two years ago, I’ve had people express their relief about the truth about all sorts of topics but one that never seems to go away is: “why do you take the calves away from their mothers?”.

The reasons why we raise the calves away from the herd are compelling. And, if you thought the risk of animal wasting disease, Bovine Johnes Disease was remote and a poor justification, read this heart-breaking news story about a Queensland cattle station, where BJD is new.

Farmers are cautious, yes, but it would be cruel to be anything less than scrupulous about the way we raise our youngsters, don’t you think?

The hard lessons of life on farm

Message for Papa

Every farmer is by nature a philosopher. You must live for the big picture, cherish the little things and remember that, no matter what, the wheel continues to turn.

This week, a cow died in labour and two more gave birth to bulls. We felt sad about the death of a favourite but welcomed two of her sisters back into the herd. Farmers know that death is an inescapable fact of life.

Even so, it was different when a friend’s dog was killed in a freak tree-felling accident. It’s much harder to be philosophical about a the passing of a man’s best mate and I felt sick just hearing about it.

It’s times like these that throw the delineation between farm animal and pet into stark relief. Animal activists often ask farmers and meat eaters whether they would eat their own pets. Of course not. Does that make a compelling case for veganism?

Not in my view. All our animals will die one day, irrespective of the cause. What makes us ethical custodians is the quality of life we provide.

Heifers home from boarding school

Heifers return home

“State your business!”

Youngsters of practically any species are funny, curious creatures and young cows are no different. These are our calves of 2010, back home after spending a season with Madeline, a farmer an hour up the road. Does home feel familiar? I hope so but in any case, these little cows have a bravado beyond their years and they weren’t showing any nerves as we sidled up to them.

At two years, they are about to calve for the first time and join the milking herd. It’s bound to be an exciting time for all concerned. Suffice to say, I’m rushing around the milker’s paddocks shoring up all the fencing for a good workout over the next couple of months and hoping they will be as quiet and gentle as the class of 2011!

Life goes on

Daily tasks on a dairy farm are a great reminder that, no matter what happens, life goes on.

Newborn calf welcomed by the cow

New life

While the floods have given us a good shaking, the circle of life continues to turn. We lost one cow last night because her calf tried to come out with all four feet at once but were delighted to assist the delivery of this lovely little calf.

Most cows manage calving on their own with ease (at least relative ease compared to human birth) and we don’t intervene unless we must for the sake of the cow and calf.

Typically, cows tend to head off to a quiet spot on their own to calve, often pacing around and around as the contractions begin. We look for two front feet first, then a nose. The calf should seem to be diving out of the cow! The whole labour shouldn’t take more than two hours or so.

Wow! After seeing thousands of calves born over my lifetime, it still amazes me.